Kentucky Speedway

Grieving while succeeding, NASCAR’s Erik Jones in year of extremes

Erik Jones signed an autograph for a fan at Texas Motor Speedway last fall. The Byron, Michigan, product, 20, is the top seed in the first-ever NASCAR Xfinity Series Chase which begins at Kentucky Speedway Saturday night.
Erik Jones signed an autograph for a fan at Texas Motor Speedway last fall. The Byron, Michigan, product, 20, is the top seed in the first-ever NASCAR Xfinity Series Chase which begins at Kentucky Speedway Saturday night. Associated Press

The best year of your life can also be the worst year of your life.

Rising NASCAR star Erik Jones, 20, has spent 2016 making big dreams come true.

In the No. 20 Toyota, the Byron, Mich., native has won four races for Joe Gibbs Racing in NASCAR’s Xfinity Series. When the inaugural Xfinity Series Chase begins Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, Jones is the top seed.

While trying to add the Xfinity Series (NASCAR’s Class AAA) championship to the 2015 Camping World Trucks Series (Class AA) title he won, Jones fulfilled every stock-car racer’s foremost aspiration:

He reached an agreement to drive in Sprint Cup full-time next season. In 2017, Jones will be driving the No. 77 5-hour Energy Toyota for Furniture Row Racing as a teammate of Martin Truex Jr.

“It’s all I could have asked for,” Jones said Tuesday.

Yet, in this year of professional bounty, Jones faced a life-altering tragedy.

The driver’s father, Dave Jones, died from cancer in June. The elder Jones, 53, was co-owner of an auto parts and restoration company in Michigan.

In a tribute to his father posted on Twitter, Erik Jones described his Dad as the one “who challenged and pushed me to a level that I never imagined I could achieve.”

Addressing his late father directly, Jones wrote, “I think about all the things that you won’t be there for over the next part of my life and it’s pretty damn hard to imagine. I took for granted that you would always be there for them, and I wish every second that you could be.”

With so many conflicting emotions to deal with, Erik Jones said his 2016 has been difficult to process. “Fortunately, I’ve had a lot of really good people, both in public and behind the scenes, who have been supporting me and helping me,” Jones said.

Though the Chase has been a staple of the Sprint Cup Series in various formats since 2004, this is the first year NASCAR has employed the motorsports equivalent of a playoff to determine the champion in its other two national touring series.

Jones is one of 12 drivers who will compete over the final seven races for the Xfinity Series title. After three races, the field will be cut to eight, then reduced to a final four after the sixth race. As in the Cup Series, any Chase-eligible driver who wins a race will automatically advance to the next round. The final four drivers will race for the championship in the series finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 19.

Kentucky Speedway General Manager Mark Simendinger said he loves having the lead-off position in the Xfinity Series Chase.

“Adding a Chase (to the NASCAR national touring series other than Cup) is something I’ve been in favor of for a long time,” Simendinger says. “I think it will create more intense racing. I think it keeps more drivers alive for the championship, which keeps more fans interested. I think it’s good all around.”

Jones comes to Kentucky Speedway’s mile-and-a-half tri-oval off a victory at Chicagoland Speedway last week. In three prior Xfinity Series races and one trucks race at Kentucky, Jones has led laps in each without taking the checkered flag in any.

During the July Xfinity race at Kentucky, Jones made the most talked-about pass of the weekend. After a late restart, he made a daring run in the outside lane to claim the lead — a move that was thought impossible on the repaved Sparta track.

“I remember it well,” Jones said. “Coming off the restart, the whole field darted to the bottom. I was like ‘OK, somebody needs to see if this outside lane can work or not?’ Going into Turn 3, with the new pavement, I didn’t know what was going to happen, whether I would wreck. Fortunately, it worked.”

Jones then sabotaged his hopes of victory in Sparta when he accidentally hit the ignition-kill switch inside his car during a subsequent caution. NASCAR competition officials ruled he had failed to keep pace with the field. As penalty, Jones was moved from first to third place on the restart. He finished fourth in a race won by Kyle Busch.

“Anytime you do something personally that you feel like costs your team a win, that’s a frustrating way to leave the racetrack,” Jones said. “I absolutely feel like we’re overdue to get a win at Kentucky. So I’m excited to go back.”

For Erik Jones, winning at Kentucky Speedway in September after losing there in such a confounding manner in July would fit a year of extremes.

NASCAR returns to Kentucky Speedway

What: VisitMyrtleBeach.com 300, the first race in the inaugural Xfinity Series Chase

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

Where: Kentucky Speedway

TV: NBC Sports Network (coverage begins at 7:30 p.m.)

For tickets: Call (859) 578-2300 or visit www.kentuckyspeedway.com/tickets

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